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Archive for January, 2018

As many readers may know, Godzilla’s cinematic career is divided into specific periods, with only the first of which, the Showa era (15 films spanning 1954-75), I am particularly familiar. Back in November, after noticing that Starz Encore Action was showing a boatload of Toho’s kaiju eiga—including at least two non-series films—I discovered why: Janus Films and the Criterion Collection had just acquired the rights to much of their Showa-era catalog. Many of those widescreen prints were subtitled, and some previously unseen in North America, giving me an excuse to revisit films that I had mostly never viewed in their original forms; by chance, I also had access to two of those they omitted, with only King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962) and Godzilla vs. Gigan (1972) eluding me…small loss though they were.

Now, you know I’m not gonna embark upon that kind of total immersion without documenting it for posterity somehow, yet with the travails of our recent relocation drastically reducing my writing time, I had to forego the traditional synopsis and/or review route. Instead, I welcomed an opportunity to spend some quality time on SuperMegaMonkey’s Godzilla Chronology Project (a kaiju counterpart to their invaluable Marvel Comics Chronology, so often cited on our Marvel University blog), which is where this material originally appeared in the comments sections, but as it grew and grew, it seemed a shame not to repurpose it in some slightly more enduring way. Thus, with minimal edits, rearranged into chronological order—which is not how I viewed them, as will be clear—and divided into what I hope are three readily digestible parts, here is the closest I may ever come to an overview of the Showa Godzilla, incomplete and scattershot as it is.

 

Godzilla (1954, aka Godzilla, King of the Monsters!)

Having missed the first recent Starz showing of Godzilla’s debut in its original Japanese version, which I saw only once years ago, I was looking forward to its Yuletide rebroadcast, yet when we finally relocated to our new home five days before Christmas, we got the disheartening (if not entirely unexpected) news that it was too arboreal for satellite service. Now sans TV, I knew I could still keep my hand in with the Raymond Burr-adulterated 1956 U.S. cut, since I own that in two formats, VHS and laserdisc. Normally, defaulting to the latter would be a no-brainer, but since the videotape was a hitherto-unopened relic from my erstwhile employer, the now-defunct GoodTimes Entertainment, I decided to show some retroactive team spirit; alas, it lacks the far superior jacket copy I later wrote myself for our DVD.

As a glass-half-full guy, I still find even this compromised version tremendously effective, and I don’t think it’s merely because the potency of the underlying material allows it to withstand the Stateside “improvements” that many of us would deem unnecessary. Giving credit where it’s due, I think “co-director” Terry O. Morse & Co. were really in there punching; sure, a trained eye can spot the filmed-from-behind doubles for Momoko Kōchi et alia that help give the Burr footage verisimilitude, but I’m impressed that they went to so much trouble to integrate it seamlessly, and his narration—which often has its own dramatic power, taking me viscerally back to my youth—obviates the need to cut or dub all of the Japanese dialogue. To me, their worst sin was voicing the great Takashi Shimura (who starred in Toho’s simultaneously produced [!] Kurosawa masterpiece, Seven Samurai) with somebody who can’t pronounce the word “phenomenon,” which he mangles at least three times, and perhaps not even consistently at that.

It may seem a stretch, but I would draw an analogy between this deadly serious monochrome classic’s relationship to its colorful, anything-goes sequels and that of the late George A. Romero’s immortal, ha ha, Night of the Living Dead. In each case, the follow-up films have their own undeniable merits, yet their styles are so drastically different as to leave the originals in a class by themselves, and although Maestro Akira Ifukube introduces many of the martial and/or monstrous themes that will become staples of the series, other cues epitomize an overall tone, in every sense of the word, that I can only call mournful. The scenes of devastated Tokyo still drive home the somewhat diminished anti-nuke message, while opening on them in medias res adds to the suspenseful build-up for Godzilla’s entrance (after 27 minutes in my version); the destruction so masterfully orchestrated by effects director Eiji Tsuburaya is somehow more personal here, emphasizing the human toll in a way that is usually sidestepped in later years, and the elaborate miniatures look a bit more like actual buildings.

I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who felt sorry for the denuded Godzilla at the end, when Shimura’s stricken face reminds us of Dr. Yamane’s idealistic assertion that he should have been studied rather than destroyed. Embodied by the suitably haunted-looking Akihiko Hirata, who reportedly switched roles with Akira Takarada at director Ishiro Honda’s behest, Dr. Serizawa is a truly tragic figure and, ironically, faces a Trumanesque decision (i.e., Should I employ this unprecedented destructive force in the service of a possibly greater good?), while his brief tussle with Ogata may be sparked as much by his unrequited love for Emiko as anything else. Underwater photography is always a plus for me, and his lonely suicide—presumably committed not solely to prevent his invention from falling into the wrong hands—adds to a final “victory” over Godzilla that seems anything but happy.

 

Godzilla Raids Again (1955, aka Gigantis, the Fire Monster; Godzilla’s Counterattack)

Actually, I would have re-watched this one anyway, since its rarity for so many years has left me less familiar with it than with so many others. Min (the equally entertaining partner of SuperMegaMonkey mainstay fnord12) tickled me with her observation that as he appears in this film, Godzilla “could benefit from a little orthodontic work,” since I said the same thing myself!

Mark Drummond, whose typically trenchant comments often grace the Marvel site, noted that, “According to Svengoolie’s recent showing of this film, the speeded-up monster fight was entirely an accident by the cameraman.” Just to expand on that, it seems the fight scenes were shot with multiple cameras, all of which were supposed to be set at the same speed, but some knucklehead overlooked the fact that one was set too slow, which of course sped up the action when played back. For whatever reason(s), they left it in, although I think it’s a definite debit.

The original plan for the U.S. release (outside of Japanese-language theaters that played the real thing) was to scrap everything but the monster footage and build a “new” movie around that, as Roger Corman did with several Soviet SF films. To that end, a new script entitled The Volcano Monsters was co-written by Ib (Reptilicus) Melchior, and Toho actually lent the Yanks some Godzilla and Anguirus suits to shoot new footage. But the company involved went under, and it was decided to go with a pretty drastic case of the more traditional dub-and-recut route, hence the notorious “banana oil” dialogue, oppressive narration, stock footage, and “clever” name change to Gigantis.

All of which I was mercifully spared while watching the subtitled original version…

 

Rodan (1956, aka Rodan, the Flying Monster)

Okay, these are not classics in the Citizen Kane sense, but by God, it’s heartening to see them treated with respect. Note to gaijin: we don’t need no stinkin’ stock footage! It’s especially interesting to revisit this early effort from the Honda/Tsuburaya/Ifukube “Dream Team” (I’m taking Tomoyuki Tanaka as a given since he produced all of Toho’s genre films). Although boasting a plethora of kaiju, it has not yet evolved, if that is the word, into the standard slugfest among them, and considerable suspense is generated in introducing them. It’s a full 17 minutes before the first Meganulon appears—said prehistoric insect popping up out of nowhere while the cast is still puzzling over how a human could have killed the victims in the mine—and another 20 before we get an even remotely recognizable shot of Rodan. I had a similar reaction when Shigeru identified it: “Yes, that’s definitely the giant monster I saw.”

Speaking of whom, I note that Kenji Sahara appeared in almost two dozen of these films, yet at least as seen here, his boyish face is far less indelibly etched in my memory than those of some of his colleagues. I’m going to try to use this total-immersion opportunity to get a better handle on some of them, since I’m ashamed to admit that they have hitherto somewhat blended together. Of course, Akihiko Hirata always looks naked without the eyepatch he sported as Dr. Serizawa in Godzilla. Unintentional hilarity: when Kashiwagi compares the photo recovered from the ill-fated groom’s camera with the Pteranodon image, it appears not only to confirm the species but also to match the exact shot.

 

Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964, aka Godzilla vs. the Thing)

Reading up on this, I see that it’s widely, and in my opinion rightly, considered one of the best Godzilla films—or at least sequels—ever. But Ghid[o]rah is so cool that between them, the next two entries and Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster (my favorite) have more than once made me forget how great this picture is.

Often, when I watch one of these, my response is something along the lines of, “Well, that was fun…but [fill in the blank],” or “Hey, that was pretty good…for a kaiju eiga.” No qualifiers here. This is a damned good movie, period. Save for mild, allegedly comic relief like the egg-eating Jiro, Godzilla’s swan song as a straight-ahead villain is dead serious, and speaking of dead, I found the head shot with which Torahata kills Kumayama surprising for 1964. The evil businessmen, so ubiquitous in these films, pay with their lives, and the death of Mama Mothra, protectively placing her wing over her egg with her last breath, is poignant.

Overmatched though her daughter will be against Ghidrah in the next film, she’s a badass here, beating the crap out of Godzilla until he nails her with a lucky shot of his wildly flailing atomic breath. That battle is nothing short of spectacular, and the effects overall are excellent, e.g., the totally convincing shot of the Fairies in their little travel case, surrounded by full-sized humans. The storm footage at the beginning is equally impressive, as is Godzilla’s eruption from the ground, however the hell he got there.

Add to that the debonair good looks of Akira Takarada, perhaps my favorite Toho genre star; the slimy villainy of Kenji Sahara, poles apart from his good-guy role in Rodan; and one of Maestro Ifukube’s best scores, and you have a prize package that can’t be beat. Doubtless it didn’t hurt that it was left largely intact by U.S. distributor AIP.

 

Ghid[o]rah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964)

Because we tend to default to the familiar, this will always be Ghidrah (i.e., sans “o”) to me. Speaking of which, since I have hitherto seen most of these films primarily or exclusively in dubbed versions, I never got familiar with the voices of the original casts, making it an unusual experience to recognize Akiko Wakabayashi’s from You Only Live Twice.

Apparently the U.S. version was subjected to a high degree of tampering, including the inexplicable change of Ghidrah’s home planet from Venus to Mars. The dialogue about one of the two larval Mothras having died in the interim was also altered to the effect that the adult Mothra died and the larva (singular) was still alive, raising for alert viewers the question of what happened to the other larva.

Vague in any version is the exact nature of the Princess/Prophetess transformation. A more or less straightforward “possession” by the Venusian intelligence seems to be the most obvious answer, although there’s also some suggestion that Venusian traits have been assimilated into humans over the centuries, rather like in Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass and the Pit.

Interesting to see both Godzilla’s transformation from villain to hero, or at least anti-hero, and the concomitant “tag team” progression from Godzilla/Mothra in the prior film through this one’s Godzilla/Mothra/Rodan/Ghidrah to Monster Zero’s (again, as I know it) Godzilla/Rodan/Ghidrah.

In addition to Godzilla’s and Rodan’s juvenile amusement at the other’s discomfiture when sprayed with Mothra-silk, another indication of the series’ increasingly kid-friendly tone comes just before the “summit meeting” among the three monsters (with, mercifully, no trace in the Japanese version of the Fairy’s stern “Oh, Godzilla, what terrible language”). When Godzilla and Rodan volley a boulder between them, they are intercut with reaction shots of Mothra’s head repeatedly going back and forth, as though she were watching a tennis match in some bizarre kaiju eiga version of Strangers on a Train. When Godzilla decides to nip Ghidrah’s smackdown of Mothra in the bud, I got a sense less of shaming, as fnord inferred, than of, “Hey, Mothra’s a pest, but she’s our pest!”

Min (who occasionally delights me with what I take to be Pogo-isms such as “mebbe” and “prolly”) and fnord make excellent points about how ill-conceived the shock-treatment gizmo is, e.g., why does it go up to 3,000 volts when 500 is supposedly fatal? But as for how Malness & Co. knew how to use it, I took it that the assassins were simply eavesdropping while waiting outside, and thus heard Tsukamoto’s explanation.

 

Addendum:  Steve Ryfle, whose 1998 book Japan’s Favorite Mon-Star: The Unauthorized Biography of “The Big G” (presumably so titled to avoid the wrath of the notoriously litigious Toho) was invaluable in my research, has now written Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, from Godzilla to Kurosawa, which he will discuss and autograph at New York’s Japan Society at 6:30 P.M. on Wednesday, February 21.  Since it is moderated by Bruce Goldstein, Director of Repertory Programming at the incomparable Film Forum, and the reception to follow will feature a display of rare Godzillabilia, the event is sure to be memorable.  The society is also showing the original Japanese version of Godzilla on Friday, February 2, at 7:00 P.M.; special thanks to Colon-san for alerting me to these events.

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On December 20, Madame BOF and I finally took formal residence at our new house in Newtown after 19 years in Bethel, a mere five days before we were compelled to host a dozen adult guests—plus one baby—for Christmas, and almost nine months since we’d closed on the place back in March. The refurbishment and the relocation of our possessions are far from over even now, while the Yuletide gathering was understandably not without its hiccups, but all things considered, it went pretty smoothly, with everyone appearing to have a good time, and with the holiday madness waning at last, we are actually starting to settle in and remember why we loved the house enough to buy it. My pride and joy is, naturlich, the finished basement boasting two walls with built-in shelves (holding DVDs, laserdiscs, videotapes, hardcovers, and trade paperbacks), two walls now lined with freestanding bookcases (holding mass-market paperbacks) and, in the midst of the latter, the lesser of our two widescreen TVs, strategically placed opposite my exercise bike so that, while riding, I am literally surrounded by books and movies.

How’s that for a nexus of film and literature!

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